Perhaps the fundamental error of the Reform and Conservative movements is their (mis)interpretation of halacha as a value system instead of a legal system. For the yeshiva student, Shabbos means 39 categories of forbidden labor, psik reisha, melacha she’eina tzericha l’gufa, etc. For the the non-halachically committed Jew, Shabbos is simply a day to celebrate the values of family, community, rest. “Antiquated” legalisms have been replaced by a commitment to some nebulous set of principles that guide, but do not dictate, behavior.
There is a trend in Orthodoxy to commit the mirror image of this error in interpreting value judgments as legal mandates. It is increasingly fashionable to point to “meta-halacha,” unstated first principles, as the justification behind prohibitions that have no clear source. However, in truth, these meta-principles are no more than value statements being disguised as law. Thus, for example, some might say that playing ball on Shabbos, while not clearly prohibited by any one rule in shulchan aruch, is no less a prohibition than lighting a fire in that it undermines the essence of what Shabbos is all about. Values as distinct from law have been replaced by a flat arena of do’s and don’ts.
Rabbi Meyer Twesky has written, “This latter concern, which we have dubbed axiological, may alternatively be described as hashkafic or public policy. Phraseology and nomenclature per se are unimportant.” But you see, nomenclature and phraseology are critically important, as they reflect (in this case) a substantive distinction. If you want to debate the length a woman’s skirt needs to be with me, we can go through the relevant gemaras, Rishonim, poskim, and see who the sources support. If you want to debate public policy, such as the degree tzniyus should impact a woman’s career choices or participation in public leadership, how are we to measure the precise balance required or determine who is right and who is wrong? It really boils down to a matter of judgment, and while people can exercise better judgment and worse judgment, it is near impossible to say with absolute certainty where the truth lies. That is not to say that anything goes – it simply means that reasonable people who equally cherish Judaism and halacha may differ and the waters are murkier than many would like to imagine.
The problem is particularly acute for modern orthodoxy. The chareidi world assigns substantial value and respect to “da’as Torah,” the value judgments of its leadership. There is no need to refashion these judgment calls into legal dictates because they are respected as-is. However, modern orthodoxy does insist a sharp distinction between “da’as Torah” and halacha proper. What then are Rabbis to do when the value system of halacha is trampled upon while technical fidelity to the law is maintained? The answer of some seems to be to extend the legal system beyond its natural borders, de facto undercutting the right to differ in matters of judgment, while still maintaining this largely fictional distinction between the “da’as Torah” of the chareidi world and that of the centrist movement.
The obvious downside to this approach is evident when the guns of axiological truth become aimed at- instead of by- the meta-halachists. Whether it be on the issue of Zionism, secular education, age of the universe, or other principles, those in the centrist camp refuse to defer to the judgment of chareidi leadership even where the “gedolim” on the right claim that the principles in question are of axiological importance. Clearly, one man’s axiological principle is another man’s bone of contention. If only those in the centrist camp took the message to heart when addressing those to the left of their own viewpoints.
I think it far better to maintain a natural and logical distinction between laws and values instead of blurring the lines. I too sympathize with the need to ensure that we don’t become halachic technocrats, maintaining fidelity to the letter of codes but trampling on their spirit. However, I think the way to achieve that goal is to teach Torah in a way that ensures that those values are meaningfully and forcefully communicated and are given the respect and appreciation they deserve. After learning Rav Tzadok haKohen’s or the Shem m’Shmuel or the Sidduro Shel Shabbos’s beautiful insights into what Shabbos means, I don’t think one can spend Shabbos on the ball field. Telling someone that not playing ball is an axiological principle reduces it to just another rule that can be trampled; teaching someone to love Shabbos is a different ball game.